The English author and magistrate Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was one of the great novelists of the 18th century. His fiction, plays, essays, and legal pamphlets show he was a humane and witty man, with a passion for reform and justice.
The English novel of today was largely created by Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Richardson's works, written in the form of a series of letters, are experiments in psychological analysis. Fielding's novels, in which the author himself tells the story and controls the plot structure, are considered the first accurate portrayal of contemporary manners.
Henry Fielding was born on April 22, 1707, at Sharpham Park, Somersetshire, the estate of his maternal grandfather. In 1710 the Fieldings moved to East Stour, Dorsetshire. When Henry was 11, his mother died. A suit for custody was brought by his grandmother against his charming but irresponsible father, Lt. Gen. Edmund Fielding. The settlement placed Henry in his grandmother's care, although he continued to visit his father in London. Henry was educated at Eton. At 17 he attempted to elope with a young heiress but was frustrated by her guardian.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Fielding's cousin, described him about this time as a high-spirited youth, full of the joy of life, witty and humorous. He was handsome and more than 6 feet in height.
Fielding's first play, Love in Several Masques, was presented in London in February 1728. The following month he entered the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, where he studied classical literature. He returned to London in 1730. For the next 7 years Fielding was active as a playwright and theater manager. He wrote masques, farces, comedies, and burlesques, including the famous burlesque Tom Thumb (1730). In 1734 he married Charlotte Cradock, who was the prototype of his heroines Sophia and Amelia. Two political satires, Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (1737), so infuriated the Whig government of Robert Walpole that all London theaters, except two protected by royal patent, were ordered closed by the Licensing Act of 1737. Fielding's career as a playwright was at an end.
Fielding then turned to the study of the law and was admitted to the bar in less than 3 years. He continued to oppose the Walpole government by editing a political journal, The Champion (1739-1740), the first of four journals that he edited in his lifetime.
In 1740 Richardson published a novel, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, the story of a young servant girl who preserves her virtue against the repeated advances of her master, Squire B—, so impressing him at last that he marries her. The book was an immediate success, being read as a lesson in morality by all young ladies. Fielding could not resist spoofing this, to him, ridiculous tale in an unsigned pamphlet, An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), in which the virtuous heroine is hilariously exposed as a conniving wench.
Continuing the attack on Richardson, Fielding wrote The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742). His purpose in this book, however, was more than parody, for he intended, as he announced in the preface, a "kind of writing which I do not remember to have seen hitherto attempted in our language." In this new kind of writing, which Fielding called a "comic epic poem in prose," he creatively blended two classical traditions: that of the epic, which had been poetic, and that of the drama, but emphasizing the comic rather than the tragic. Another distinction of Joseph Andrews and of the novels to come was the use of everyday reality of character and action as opposed to the fables of the past.
Joseph Andrews is supposedly the brother of "the illustrious Pamela, whose virtue is at present so famous." He resists the advances of his employer, Lady Booby, in order to remain faithful to his true love, Fanny Goodwill. After escaping Lady Booby and surviving amusing adventures along the road with his companion, Parson Adams, Joseph is reunited with Fanny.
Fielding's law practice was not prospering, and the moderate income from Joseph Andrews was not sufficient to provide for his wife and children. Consequently he gathered for publication as Miscellanies (3 vols., 1743) some earlier works, including The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild, the Great, a savagely ironic account of a notorious London thief whom he equated satirically with all "great men," Robert Walpole in particular.
Fielding's eldest daughter died in 1742, his wife in 1744, and he himself was crippled with gout. The death of his beloved wife was such a shock to Fielding that his friends feared for his reason. Yet during these sad years Fielding was creating his comic masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, which appeared in 1749.
The plot of Tom Jones is too ingeniously complicated for simple summary; its basis is Tom's alienation from his foster father, Squire Allworthy, and his sweetheart, Sophia Western, and his reconciliation with them after lively and dangerous adventures on the road and in London. The triumph of the book is its presentation of English life and character in the mid-18th century. Every social type is represented, and through them every shade of moral behavior. Fielding's varied style tempers the basic seriousness of the novel, and his authorial comment preceding each chapter adds a significant dimension to the conventionally straightforward narrative.
While he was writing Tom Jones, Fielding also edited two journals—The True Patriot (1745-1746) and The Jacobite's Journal (1747-1748)—which were undertaken to counteract popular enthusiasm for Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender. Fielding wrote a preface (1744) for The Adventures of David Simple, a novel by his sister Sarah, and another preface (1747) for its sequel. In 1747 he married Mary Daniel, his first wife's servant; their grief over her death had drawn them together. Together they had five children.
In 1748 Fielding was commissioned justice of the peace for Westminster and later for Middlesex as well. Most of his work was concerned with London's criminal population of thieves, informers, gamblers, and prostitutes. In a corrupt and callous society he became noted for his impartial judgments, incorruptibility, and compassion for those whom social inequities had forced into crime. The income from his office, which he called "the dirtiest money upon earth," dwindled because he refused to take money from the very poor. Fielding was assisted in his work by his blind half brother, Sir John Fielding (1722-1780), a justice of the peace, who was said to be able to recognize over 3,000 thieves by their voices. The brothers organized the Bow Street Runners, the first modern police force, and they lobbied continually in Parliament for enlightened criminal legislation.
Henry Fielding's experiences as a magistrate gave a more serious tone to his last novel, Amelia (1752). The sufferings of the heroine, Amelia Booth, and her husband, a soldier, are used to expose and condemn the civil and military establishments of the period. In his essays for his last periodical, the Covent Garden Journal (1752), Fielding criticized wittily and incisively politics, society, and literature.
Sick with jaundice, dropsy, and gout and worn out by overwork, Fielding resigned his post as magistrate and sailed to Lisbon, where he hoped to recuperate. Even this painful voyage was matter for his pen; he made it the subject of his last work, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, which was published posthumously (1755). Fielding died in Lisbon on Oct. 8, 1754, and was buried in the English cemetery there.
There are two major critical biographies of Fielding: Wilbur L. Cross, The History of Henry Fielding (3 vols., 1918; repr. 1964), and Frederick H. Dudden, Henry Fielding: His Life, Works, and Times (2 vols., 1952; repr. 1966). A short biography is John E. Butt, Fielding (1954). The fullest treatment of the novels is in Aurélien Digeon, The Novels of Fielding (1925). The chapters on Fielding in the following books are useful: Ernest A. Baker, The History of the English Novel, vol. 4 (1932); Arnold Kettle, An Introduction to the English Novel, vol. 1 (1957); and Ian P. Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957). Recommended for general historical background are Arthur S. Tuberville, English Men and Manners in the Eighteenth Century (2d ed. 1929); George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (2d ed. 1946); and Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy, 1714-1760 (2d ed., rev. by C. H. Stuart, 1962).